In the flurry of criticism over China’s air defence identification zone in the South China Sea, the fact that New Zealand’s Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman has been visiting his Chinese counterpart has been lost in the noise. And while the United States and a number of its Asian allies—Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines—have been barking at Beijing, Dr Coleman’s purpose appears to have been quite different. In some remarkable comments reported by the New Zealand Herald, Coleman explained that his trip was designed to ‘balance out our diplomacy with the United States’ and that Wellington was ‘walking this path between the US and China’.
I’ve seen no sign of a formal New Zealand statement on the East China Sea crisis, and certainly nothing along the lines of Australia’s reaction. According to the Herald, Coleman ‘said he would be telling his hosts that New Zealand did not take sides in disputes and wanted them resolved through international processes’. This seems a more deliberately neutral and backseat approach than Australia’s adoption of the Japanese formula. In opposing unilateral changes to the East China Sea status quo, Canberra’s language has clearly China signalled as the culprit. In contrast, there seems no chance that Wellington will be announcing any time soon that it has called in the Chinese Ambassador for an explanation of the new zone.
The coverage of Coleman’s Beijing visit has been rather sparse. But the wonderful Global Times, which can normally be relied on to stick it to other countries when they adopt unwelcome positions, issued a brief story without any detectable barbs. China’s Defence Minister Chang Wangquan was reported as saying that ‘comprehensive cooperation between China and New Zealand had found good momentum’. The two Ministers had ‘exchanged views… on the Diaoyu Islands issue’ our favourite Chinese media organ had said, and Minister Chang had ‘explained in detail China’s newly established Air Defense Identification Zone’. I bet he did, and presumably Chang also asked his New Zealand visitor for a read on Australia’s position. Interestingly, Coleman’s media release regarding his visit carries very similarly neutral language: ‘My meetings in Beijing’, his statement reads, ‘also allowed for exchanges of views on China’s Air Defense Identification Zone and on East China Sea issues’.
The gap in New Zealand and Australian views on China was evident in this week’s annual Leadership Forum between the two countries in Sydney. Several cabinet Ministers from both countries were active participants in this business-focused meeting. Prominent members of the Aussie contingent continually referred to New Zealand’s success in signing and implementing a Free Trade Agreement with Beijing. In typically understated fashion, the kiwis hinted that it had been useful to have a good political relationship with China and also to have an independent foreign policy. The second of these points is normally code for not getting too close to the US (a reputation which New Zealand’s nuclear disagreement with Washington since the mid-1980s had helped to maintain).
Of course New Zealand’s defence links with the US have warmed markedly over the last few years, a process accelerated recently and marked by the signing of last year’s Washington Declaration. And as Mr Coleman was travelling to Beijing, US defence personnel were completing their involvement in Exercise Southern Katipo, the largest multinational exercise hosted by New Zealand for some time. Named after the New Zealand cousin of the red back spider, Southern Katipo was centred on an intervention by a ‘League of Pacific Nations’ in the South Pacific island state of ‘Mainlandia’ (based on a self-referential and colloquial term for the South Island). At least one PACOM journalist has made quite a deal of this event. All the more reason, it seems, for Dr Coleman, seeking that balance between the two major powers, to show that New Zealand sees China as a valued partner too.
But at the same time, the public tenor of Coleman’s visit only increases the geopolitical distance between New Zealand and its number one security and economic partner across the ditch. Given Australia’s strong alliance line on China in conjunction with the US and Japan, the independent streak in New Zealand’s foreign policy will increasingly symbolise some trans-Tasman separation as well.
Robert Ayson is on research leave from Victoria University of Wellington at the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user Leonard John Matthews.